Arun Shourie on what to do — and not to do — in the final lap of life

Richa Mishra | Updated on November 20, 2020

Now and then: Shourie says his life is all about taking care of his son and wife, and also making arrangements for their well-being after his lifetime   -  M VEDHAN

Let us be realistic about the end of life, says the journalist-turned-politician

Nothing is certain in this world, as the wise man said, barring taxes and death. One would have expected economist Arun Shourie to have focused on the former; instead, what we now have is his rumination on death.

In his latest offering — Preparing for Death — Shourie writes about dealing with mortality. People can approach this eventuality by drawing inspiration from the lives of the Buddha, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, Ramana Maharshi, Mahatma Gandhi and Vinoba Bhave, he says, as he helps the reader interpret rituals, pilgrimages and mantras to be ready for the final journey.

Preparing for Death / Arun Shourie / Penguin Random House / Non-fiction / ₹799


The journalist-turned-politician has had to battle grave challenges in his own life. His son has cerebral palsy; his wife is afflicted with Parkinson’s. The former Union disinvestment minister was recently also dragged to court over the sale of a government-run hotel when he was at the Centre.

In a conversation with BLink he shares his thoughts on life’s challenges as well as those before the country. Excerpts:

How should one treat this book? As a positive book on life or an honest book about reality?

We should look at the whole process realistically. We should not try to shut it away. We should not go for fanciful constructions about heaven and all other such aspects. The book is a plea for realism, about what we should do in our last lap. In the last three or four chapters I have summarised the teachings which I found very helpful. They all are to do with the mind. Yoga is to calm and eliminate the chatter that goes on in the mind, for us to ensure calmness.

In the end, I am sure, for all of us there will be regret — it will be important to control our mind and it requires us to begin (the process) very early. We need to follow it throughout our life with practice.

Many practices have been devised for concentration, for loosening the mind, for observation. Observing the blank mind and listening to the sound of silence. For example, when I went for an MRI or my experience in ICU, instead of noting the external sounds or noise I tried to note the reaction to it in the mind. Focus not on the objective — any disturbing thing — but focus on the mind’s reaction to that event, because it instils thought. Instead of a sense of loss, my mind should think about things which we need to do as we come closer to the last journey.

Why would you talk about death at this moment (when the world outside is so depressing)?

Well, it is a perennially current subject. I started working on the book about two years ago. I have been studying our spiritual traditions for quite some time. I had written a book — Does He Know a Mother’s Heart — about how explanations for sufferings just don’t stand to reason. Then I wrote a book called Two Saints, which was about Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Ramana Maharshi, and the question there was: What kind of experiences among the ones they reported could be caused by natural causes before they jumped to supernatural expiations?

The wise one: For the Buddha, death was a perennial subject   -  ISTOCK.COM


I have been studying their spoken words for a very long time. I have been studying discourses of the Buddha for a very long time. In the case of the Buddha, Gandhiji and Vinoba Bhave, death is a perennial subject. For the Buddha, of course, it was an all-consuming subject, in the sense that there was no distinction between preparing for life and death. So it was just a natural subject to take up.

The subject hits you in the face...

The book did not have anything to do with the Covid-19 times. Secondly, the approach of the Buddha to death is, in a sense, very positive — don’t ignore it, but prepare yourselves for it. And in India, Sanyaas Upanishads [about monastic practices] and santhara [the practice of fasting to death] also talk about it. They are very positive approaches in the sense that it [death] is there and we have to deal with it and what are the ways to deal with it.

In this book, the argument is that, by definition, as we approach death our body will be going out of control, so how do we ensure a peaceful death. It is by ensuring a peaceful dissolution of the mind, and several techniques have been developed for that. It is a pearl of great price in Indian traditions that they looked inwards to see how the mind could be calmed, and that very practice helps us in the last months or weeks or moments to dissolve the mind peacefully. So it is a very positive statement.

You also point out in the book that we humans believe we are immortal — that not today, not right now, nothing will happen to me...

Yes, the Buddha says that, and the Mahabharat has it, too. Yudhisthir’s last question... What is the strangest thing he sees? And he says, that people are dying all the time but they think it will not happen to them. So, I think we don’t face the fact of destruction... and therefore we ignore it. And, secondly, we think, if I die, then all these notions which have been developed by religion will [come into effect]. I will be in the lap of god or I will be in heaven or I will be in hell — something of me will survive so that I can sit in god’s lap. In the case of heaven, it is the same — I survive so that I enjoy the beatitude of heaven. Then in hell, to experience those tortures, something in me has survived. So it is all a denial of the fact that death is destruction. That is why we don’t want to face the fact that it can happen anytime.

Your personal and professional lives have been a journey in themselves. You are fighting many battles even today. How much of your personal preparedness is there in this book?

Well, no doubt about that, my life is all about taking care of my son and wife. If I pre-decease them what arrangements have been made for them to be looked after, because I am their main ‘looker after’. In this book I have also described making some of the mundane arrangements for them — and hoping that some relative will have some emotional quotient to take care (of them).

Let us talk about your years in government. Nothing major has happened as far as strategic disinvestment is concerned. (As disinvestment minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, Shourie led the sale of Maruti, VSNL and Hindustan Zinc, among others.) Where and how did things go wrong?

Every finance minister has been saying that we will do strategic sales. Even P Chidambaram — I have high regard for his acumen — said in his first Budget that they would disinvest all loss-making public sector enterprises (PSE). I had then published a list of 28 loss-making PSEs. But they were never able to do so. Now, of course, it has become a complete farce — in the sense that you force one PSE to buy shares in another PSE and call it disinvestment. It is taken as receipts to ensure that the deficit is under control. Is it such a great achievement that you have kept deficit in bound?

They don’t realise that the consequence of this is felt in the economy. Whether you dress up the figure for deficit or GDP, it is going to affect the economy. The same thing is now happening at a larger scale.

I have to share a conversation I recently had with Yashwant Sinha. He was saying how difficult it was to get hospital beds. Instead of the ease of doing business, we should tell the government to ‘please work on the ease of living’. Sinha said that in one of Arun Jaitley’s Budgets, Jaitley had said we were moving from the ease of doing business to the ease of living. But in the printed Budget speech, living was spelled as leaving and that was the time when Vijay Mallya had left!

One can’t but ask you for your views on the current political dispensation.

I think the country, as we have known it, has been destroyed step by step. Just look at the condition to which the judiciary has been reduced, the bureaucracy has been reduced, the condition to which the investigating agencies have been reduced, and the condition to which the regulating institutions have been reduced.

Look at what is happening in the National Company Law Tribunal. Resolutions are to be done in 90 days but they go on and on and resolution professionals are taking hefty fees for not solving the cases.

They keep talking about an [economic] stimulus. Every two or three months they announce one stimulus, but where are the crores [of rupees] going? Similarly, the destruction of norms is terrible — Bills are being passed as Money Bill in the House. The State is the only thing which is left today. But you see the systematic undermining of federalism also happening there.

Richa Mishra

Published on November 20, 2020

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